Why? Take Israel, the only First World democracy lacking the institution of civil marriage. If two people of different religious backgrounds in Israel want to marry, they can't do it in Israel. Rather, they have to leave the country, often going to nearby European Cyprus, to contract a marriage there. The Israeli state does recognize all marriages contracted abroad, true, and can even be said to condone these marriages. It still can't be said that the Israeli state supports these marriages--the requirement to leave the country can't be seen as anything but an effort at deterrence. Despite the manifest bigotry of this, the ban still finds some supporters.
Characterizing a time-honored and deeply Jewish standard as something malevolent is grossly unfair. Overheated and incendiary language about “human rights” and a “marriage monopoly” only serves to turn Israeli Jews farther away from whatever connection they may have with their religious heritage and the broader community of Jews. Do we Americans speak of standard-setters like the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Reserve Board as sinister “monopolies?” Do safety regulations or interest rate adjustments, inconvenient though they may be to some, constitute a curtailment of “human rights?” A Jewish state needs a Jewish standard for marriage and divorce, and halacha — the highest common Jewish denominator — is the logical, not to mention the most Jewishly authentic, choice.
Myself, I find these arguments as fundamentally ridiculous as the ones voiced in The Onion's 2004 spoof "Massachusetts Supreme Court Orders All Citizens To Gay Marry". If people want to marry only those people within their particular community whose ancestry, fine. If you want to date only Asians, or men, or Canadians, or women, fine. That might not be what I'd like to do in my personal life, but other people's personal lives are just as surely their personal lives, and so long as their partners consent to the arrangement I can't reasonably object. Coercing other people in such a way is nyekulturny.
This changes when some people seek to deprive other people of an ability to structure their own personal lives. I can't see the ongoing efforts of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel to make all potentially non-halachic marriages--not only those between people of different religions, but between people of different sects--as anything but a perfect instance of a state used by bigots to coerce others.
Why do this? Look to Lebanon to Israel's north. In Lebanon, a 1998 attempt to pass a civil marriage law failed, despite the numerous advantages of such a law for the Lebanese people.
Such an arrangement would encourage mixed marriages and would also seek to institutionalize equality between genders on many levels, including that of marital rights, inheritance, and child custody as compared to most religious marriages that favor fathers.
Civil marriage would legalize adoption, as well, forbidden under Islamic law. It could also pave the way for a possible abolishment of sectarianism in a country that has been severely suffering from this problem ever since it existed.
Civil marriage would deprive religious leaders of power and financial interests. The religious authorities in Lebanon maintain a balance of power that has been constantly used to obstruct any possibility for the development of a secular state and society.
A civil marriage law would enhance the status of women in Lebanese society; this alone would be a threat to traditional-minded Lebanese. Perhaps most importantly, a civil marriage law in Lebanese would have removed the stranglehold of the different religious communities over their subjects. If priests or mullahs could no longer decide who their subjects could marry, determining how their communities would propagate, how could they survive?
When the civil marriage proposal was first made public 18 months ago, Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, leader of the Maronites, the largest Christian group in Lebanon, said that while he did not oppose the proposal, he could not approve of it so long as Muslim religious authorities rejected it.
"The law is either there for all Lebanese or for none," he said. Georges Dimas, a Greek Orthodoc priest at Notre Dame de l'Annonciation in Beirut, said that while "the church is not against civil marriage in itself, since it recognizes freedom of choice, I must admit that it does not make me happy to see young people choosing to get married outside it."
Muslim leaders tend to be the most vocally opposed.
"We cannot accept the marriage of a Muslim woman to someone who is not Muslim-this is our most important disagreement with civil marriage," said Sheikh Maher Hammoud, the Sunni leader of a mosque in the Southern coastal town of Sidon.
"If the husband is not Muslim, she will take the ideas of her husband, who has the wrong ideas," he said.
The people traditionally in charge of marriage in both Israel and Lebanon--and in other countries, mostly in the Middle East, which refuse to allow marriage across lines of religion--have a vested interest in maintaining their power. So what, these people might think, if in so doing they help to perpetuate the same cleavages that have already caused so much suffering? "God will know his own."
Have I ever mentioned that I tend to think that God and the gods should be taken out of politics?